Sergio Garcia hosts the Andalucía Valderrama Masters again - an event he's already won twice - and our man has the lowdown with his comprehensive preview here...
"The hattrick seeking tournament host, Sergio Garcia, has phenomenal form figures at Valderrama stretching all the way back to the last century that read 7-5-7-7-2-2-2-34-4-10-1-3-1. With 12 top-10s, eight top-fives, or even 11 top-seven finishes, and two victories from 13 starts here, it’s impossible to argue against his chances."
The Andalucía Valderrama Masters made a welcome return to the European Tour schedule 12 months ago, six years after it had last been staged. The tournament had only twice previously been played with Graeme McDowell winning the inaugural event in 2010 before Sergio Garcia claimed the second edition 12 months later and the popular Spaniard returns this time around in a bid to win it for a third time having edged out Joost Luiten by a stroke last year.
Real Club Valderrama, Sotogrande, Spain.
Par 71, 6,991 yards
Stroke Index in 2017 - 72.88
Designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr, and opened in 1985, Valderrama is a short, tree-lined course with Bermuda fairways and Bentgrass greens.
In addition to this tournament, Valderrama was also used on the European Tour in April 2016 when it hosted the Open de Espana, won by Andrew Johnston, and prior to the inception of the Race to Dubai it was the home of the now defunct season ending, money list deciding, Volvo Masters, between 1988 and 1996 and again between 2002 and 2008. It was also the host venue for the 1997 Ryder Cup and also for the WGC-American Express Championship (now the WGC-Mexico Championship).
It's a tough but beautiful course with narrow slopping fairways, framed by cork trees. The greens are smaller than average, undulating and they usually run at around 12.5 on the stimpmeter. Water is in play on holes four, 10 and 17.
The front nine greens and surrounds complexes were totally re-grassed prior to the off 12 months ago but there were no changes to the design.
For more on the course, see the hole-by-hole guide here.
Live on Sky Sports all four days - starting at 11:00 on Thursday.
First Three Tournament Winners
2010 - Graeme McDowell -2
2011 - Sergio Garcia -6
2012-2016 - No Event
2017 - Sergio Garcia -12
What Will it Take to Win the Andalucía Valderrama Masters?
Given he ranked better for Driving Distance than he did for Driving Accuracy, and that he only ranked ninth for Greens In Regulation and 27th for Scrambling, Sergio's stats went against the grain somewhat when he won here 12 months ago but the placed players franked the usual stats trends...
The two players to rank second and fourth for DA, Anders Hansen and Wade Ormsby, finished inside the top-six places, Jamie Donaldson and Daniel Brooks, who finished fourth and third, ranked first and second for Greens In Regulation and the top Scrambler for the week was Ormsby, who finished fifth.
Valderrama is a tight track off the tee and the greens are small so accuracy is the key to success. When winning the Open de Espana two years ago, Johnston ranked first for both Driving Accuracy and Greens In Regulation and looking back to the first two editions of this event, it was a similar story then too.
The 2010 winner, Graeme McDowell, ranked sixth for DA the week he won and Garcia ranked 11thin 2011, and both men ranked highly for GIR. Nobody hit more putting surfaces that G-Mac in 2010 and Garcia ranked 10th 12 months later.
I've looked back at the last three Volvo Masters tournaments to be staged here, as well as the three results of this event, and at Johnson's win two years ago, and the stats are pretty similar. See below.
2011 Sergio Garcia -12 (DD: 8, DA: 12, GIR: 9, Sc: 27, PA: 9)
2016 Andrew Johnston - (DD: 35, DA: 1, GIR: 1, Sc: 20, PA: 25)
2011 Sergio Garcia -6 (DD: 24, DA: 10, GIR: 10, Sc: 4, PA: 8)
2010 Graeme McDowell -3 (DD: 47, DA: 6, GIR: 1, Sc: 18, PA: 4)
2008 Soren Kjeldsen -8 (DD: 41, DA: 29, GIR: 22, Sc: 4, PA: 12)
2007 Justin Rose -1 (DD: 4, DA: 26, GIR: 8, Sc: 7, PA: 3)
2006 Jeev Milkha Singh -2 (DD: 52, DA: 52, GIR: 17, Sc: 16, PA: 15)
DD= Driving Distance
DA= Driving Accuracy
GIR= Greens In Regulation
PA= Putting Average
The last seven course winners have an average Greens In Regulation ranking of 9.7 and an average Scrambling ranking of 13.7, so hitting the tiny greens is important and getting up-and-down when they're inevitably missed is also key but looking at the stats, a good week with the putter is also very important.
The last seven course winners have had an average Putting Average ranking of 11.85. The first three home last year ranked ninth, sixth and first and the first five home here in this event in 2011 all ranked inside the top-ten for that stat.
Although not right on the coastline, Valderrama often experiences windy conditions and that's another reason for the higher than average scoring. An ability to handle breezy conditions well is often crucial, although looking at the very early forecasts, that might not be the case this year. Throughout Thursday and early doors on Saturday are the only occasions on which the wind is forecast to blow at more than 10 knots per hour at this stage.
Is There an Angle In?
Johnston won here on debut two years ago, so it is possible to take to the course straight away, but course experience is very important. Last year's first and second, Garcia and Joost Luiten, already had lots of course form to boast and they'd finished second and third to Johnston in 2016, with another course winner, Soren Kjeldsen back in fourth. And in the 2011 edition of this event, only one of 19 debutants (Richie Ramsay) bettered 73 in round one. It's a quirky little track so it stands to reason that course form holds up well.
Another Trent Jones course that looks very similar, that should correlate nicely, is the Palais Royal d'Agadir in Morocco, the host course for the Trophée Hassan II until 2015 and it might not be especially relevant but it would be remiss of me not to mention that Augusta appears to correlate too. Last year's US Masters' playoff protagonists, Sergio and Padraig Harrington, have both won here and Masters winners Tiger Woods, Mike Weir and Bernhard Langer have all enjoyed success around Valderrama.
Is There an Identikit Winner?
The cream tends to rise to the top at Valderrama and major winners Justin Rose, Garcia, G-Mac, Woods, Weir and Langer have all won here. And Ian Poulter, Colin Montgomerie, Paul McGinley, Mark McNulty and Soren Kjeldsen are all multiple winning, top-class pros that have tasted success at the venue.
Having tied for the lead after round one, Garcia and Luiten dominated the event 12 months ago, never falling outside the first three places at any stage. In what was another example of the class-acts dominating.at Valderrama, the two finished the week separated by a solitary stroke but four clear of the remainder and it was yet another example of how important a fast start is.
Johnston sat second after rounds one, two and three two years ago before pouncing to win and the last five course winners have been inside the front five places all week long. Sergio last year and the five winners before Johnston were all in front after three rounds.
Every course winner and beaten playoff protagonist since 1996 (as far as I've gone back) has been inside the top-five places with a round to go, and all bar two have sat inside the front three, but it is possible to make up a reasonable strokes deficit...
Simon Dyson and Soren Kjeldsen sat second and fourth, trailing by four and seven strokes respectively, with a round to go in 2007 but both made it to a playoff before getting beat by third round leader Justin Rose and Paul McGinley trailed by four after 54 holes when he won here in 2005. Poulter won from three back after three rounds in 2004 and Langer trailed by four in fifth place after 54 holes in 2002.
If you're planning to bet in-running, the finish is really tough. In 2011, the final four holes ranked as four of the five hardest on the course, holes 16 and 18 ranked as the two toughest on the course in 2016, and 16 and 15 ranked as the hardest two holes last year. Surprisingly, the 18th ranked as only the sixth hardest 12 months ago but it's still a tough finishing hole with a very demanding tee-shot.
The hat-trick seeking tournament host, Sergio Garcia, has phenomenal form figures at Valderrama stretching all the way back to the last century that read 7-5-7-7-2-2-2-34-4-10-1-3-1. With 12 top-10s, eight top-fives or even 11 top-seven finishes, and two victories from 13 starts here, it's impossible to argue against his chances. His record here is absolutely sensational and his price is certainly not too short. And given he still finished third here in 2016, after sitting eight off the lead in a tie for 52nd after an uncharacteristically high opening round of 74, one could argue he plays the famous venue better than ever now he's a more experienced player.
It's hard to get too enthusiastic about any of the other market leaders. I backed the second-favourite, Shane Lowry, last week in the British Masters at almost three times his price this week at a course that should have suited him and in conditions that he wouldn't have minded but he was disappointing.
Course winner, Lee Westwood, looks well past his best and when he gave himself a chance in Denmark recently he wasn't great in-contention again and course winners Soren Kjeldsen and Andrew Johnston just aren't playing well enough to justify their cramped odds.
Padraig Harrington is largely in form and has won here before and it will be interesting to see how Joost Luiten goes on his first start back after being side-lined since May with a wrist injury.
I dithered too long and missed the opening shows on Garcia (he's been matched at a high of 8.27/1) and I'm happy to leave him alone from the start now. He's shortening up all the time and to a price I'm happy enough to miss - although I'm not of the opinion his price is too short. His chance is very obvious and it's very hard to envisage him not contending but with such strong in-running trends, I'm happy to survey the situation after round one, or during play, so my only pre-tournament pick for now is my each-way selection (piece here) - Jeunghun Wang.
Jeunghun Wang @ 75.074/1
I'll be back later with my CJ Cup preview.
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